The Chelsea Piers were first opened in 1910, after 30 years of talk and 8 years of construction. For the next half century, the Chelsea Piers served the needs of the New York port: first off as the city’s leading passenger ship terminal; then as boarding point for soldiers departing to the battlefields of both World Wars; and lastly, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a cargo terminal.
The architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, which was also designing Grand Central Terminal at the same time, designed the Chelsea Piers. Warren and Wetmore designed the piers to replace a mass of run-down waterfront structures with a stunning row of grand buildings adorned with pink granite facades.
In the early days of the Chelsea Piers it welcomed most of the world’s great liners such as the famed White Star and Cunard lines. In a given afternoon, an onlooker could see as many as twenty smokestacks, as five liners prepared to sail off during the evening tide.
Not only did the rich and famous dock in Chelsea Piers, but so did immigrants, many of whom traveled in the overcrowded steerage class. By 1910, when Chelsea Piers opened, thousands of immigrants arrived in Chelsea Piers daily, where they were transferred to ferries that brought them to Ellis Island.
One of the most infamous events in United States history is connected to the Chelsea Piers. The Titanic was originally scheduled to dock at Pier 59 in New York to conclude her maiden voyage, on April 16, 1912. When the “unsinkable” ship struck an iceberg and sank on April 14, 1912, of the 2,200 passengers aboard, 675 were rescued by the Cunard liner Carpathia, which brought Titanic’s lifeboats to Pier 59 on April 20th.
Another unfortunate event linked to the Chelsea Piers occurred three years later. In May 1915, the luxury liner Lusitania departed from the Chelsea Piers on her regular run back to England. All was well until the liner reached the coast of Ireland where a German U-boat torpedoed her, killing 1,198 people, of which 124 were American. This event rallied public opinion in support of America’s entry into World War I.
During the war, like docks in highly esteemed harbors everywhere, the Chelsea piers were busy participants in the war effort. When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, a majority of the passengers debarking from Cunard’s Barengaria a few days later were now bankrupt. By 1933, the Great Depression drastically decreased transatlantic travel, and the Atlantic trade dropped from one million voyagers in 1929 to fewer than half by 1935. During this time period huge new vessels such as the 1,000-foot Normandie and Queen Mary came into port, and much longer piers were needed and constructed between West 44th and West 45nd Streets, forming what is still called “Luxury Liner Row.” The Chelsea Piers re-gained brief popularity during World War II as a major embarkation point for troop carriers taking American servicemen to Europe, but after the war, the Chelsea Piers never regained their former importance for passenger shipping.
When daily commercial jet service to Europe began in 1958, transatlantic passenger ship travel essentially came to a halt. After the early 1960s, as industry starting leaving the city during the period of deindustrialization and as jet planes whisked passengers across the Atlantic at far greater paces than passenger ships, the Chelsea Piers, became abandoned maritime vestiges, like the majority of Manhattan’s waterfront.
Although in 1976 the waterfront became regarded as a historic resource worthy of preservation, the Chelsea Piers were scheduled for demolition to make way for the Westway Plan. At this time the Chelsea Piers were owned by the New York State Department of Transportation. Needless to say, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Chelsea Piers were merely reminders of a glorious past. Thankfully for the historical piers, the highway project failed. In 1992, the Department of Transportation decided to auction off the Chelsea Piers. In May of the same year, a newly formed company, Chelsea piers Management, Inc., submitted a bid and proposal to the New York State Department of Transportation to obtain the right to develop and operate the Chelsea Piers. Soon, Chelsea Piers Management was granted the rights to lease the Chelsea Piers and to develop and operate a sports and entertainment facility on the premises. The final building permits were granted in May 1994, and the Chelsea Piers thus began restoration back to fame and fortune.
The restoration of the four remaining Chelsea Piers marks the overall gentrification of Manhattan, as well as a major step the city has made in rebirthing the Manhattan waterfront for public use and recreation. In addition, the restoration of the Chelsea Piers has returned them to the prominence they possessed during the first half of the 20th century, during the time when the Chelsea Piers were the center of international ocean liner travel.
The Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex opened in stages, beginning in August 1995. In 1996 the complex filled four reclaimed Chelsea Piers (Piers 59-62) – each as long as the Met Life Building is tall – and included: a 70-ship marina, 200-yard golf driving range, quarter-mile indoor track, 50-foot-high rock-climbing wall, two indoor skating rinks, two outdoor roller rinks, a field house, six sound stages, seven photo studios, three restaurants, five sports shops and a mile-long waterfront esplanade, and three cruise liners at anchor. Today, the Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex has several different components: The Field House; Golf Club; Sky Rink; Health Club; Pier Sixty & Lighthouse; Bowlmor; Shopping and Dining; The MarineMax Marina; Ticketed Harbor Cruises and a Sailing School; and Ice Theatre of New York.
The history of the Chelsea Piers, as well as the Chelsea neighborhood as a whole, shows the progression of New York City: first as an industrial city; then as a city that went through the depression; then a city that underwent deindustrialization and reached a low point; and now a city that is continuing to gentrify and beautify.